Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Thoughts on 2019 Reading List

An extraordinary year for reading. Two of the best books, by any measure — one a novel, the other a memoir — were written by Kansans. 

The New York Times considered Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School one of the 10 best books of the year. Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh, was a finalist for the National Book Award.  

Both books resonated with me.  I worked in Topeka for years, and raised my family there. My daughter and Lerner attended the same high school. Lerner and my oldest son were competitors in debate. And, I am almost certain, I judged Lerner at least once at a Topeka forensics tournament.

I know the geography of The Topeka School — intimately. The World Famous Topeka Zoo. The Westridge Mall. The crumbling church at Stull with its gateway to hell. The Phelps family from Westboro Church with their crude signs denouncing gays. The Phelps family was guaranteed to raise your blood  pressure. I tried to avoid the intersections they frequented.

The Topeka School is Lerner’s most accessible novel, and most successful.   Kansas has had its writers — William Inge, William Stafford, Gordon Parks — but, until now, the Sunflower State could never boast of a writer with such range, insight and critical success.

Smarsh’s memoir is the story of growing up poor in rural Kansas. I see parallels in our lives, but the differences are stark.

She lived west of Wichita. I lived east. She was born when her mom was 17. My mom was married on her 15th birthday and I was born a week before she turned 16. Mom went on to have four children before she was 25, including a daughter stricken with cerebral palsy.

Both families had little education. My dad graduated high school. Mom, who grew up dirt poor, only went as far as the eighth grade. Sarah and I were both the first in our families to receive a college degree. 

But the differences in in economic opportunity and family stability were stark and help to explain why my family was a rung or two up the economic ladder.  

For generations Smarsh’s family was cursed with teen pregnancies, abusive men, divorce, alcoholism, and dead-end jobs.  

Neither of my parents smoked or drank, and dad was not a violent man, although he did not spare the belt when his three boys misbehaved. My folks were married more than 50 years.

The folks operated two cafes in our small town and Mom later ran a successful clothing store. Dad worked; first at a local refinery and, when that closed, he caught on with one of aircraft manufacturers in Wichita. I remember he found employment even in the midst of union strikes. The old man worked into his eighties.

We also benefitted from my paternal grandparents. Grandpa worked construction, yet still found time to grow a little alfalfa, raise cattle and a hog or two. He’d butcher a cow and a hog each year, assuring us a plentiful supply of beef and pork. Grandma raised chickens. She had layers and fryers (essentially if you weren’t a layer, you were a fryer, i.e. Sunday dinner), and nurtured an immense garden that fed three or four families.

Smarsh avoided her family’s curse of teen pregnancy. She attended the University of Kansas, received a degree in journalism and launched a successful career as a journalist covering socio-economic class, politics and public policy. 

Damn, these were good books.  Not unexpected in Lerner’s case, but Smarsh’s captivating memoir came out of left field.  My deepest appreciation to Rex Buchanan for telling me, “You’ve got to read this.”

(Rex had a new book published in 2019. I liked it a lot, but doubt that many of you have the same interest as I did in Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.)

Here are what I consider my best “reads” of 2019.  I think there’s something for everyone. Non-fiction was especially strong.

Lady In The Lake, Laura Lippman
The Overstory, Richard Powers
Big Sky, Kate Atkinson
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
Exhalation, Ted Chiang
Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
The Institute, Stephen King
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
The Topeka School, Ben Lerner
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern were flawed, but beautiful, powerful works of fiction. 

The most skillfully executed novel was The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Her best in a long and distinguished career.

Don’t overlook Stephen King and The Institute. If you think shlock horror, you’re mistaken. He is a consummate storyteller who understands the source of true evil lives in the heart of our fellow man. 

I was extremely pleased to discover the writing of James L. Haley, who has launched a series of adventure novels featuring the “early American, tall ship sailing navy.” With three books published, and five more planned, Haley is poised to do for the nascent U.S. navy, what Patrick O’Brien did for the British. Haley is every bit as adept as Bernard Cornwell when it comes to historical fiction. The novels are an absolute delight and will be a welcome addition to my reading life for years to come. 

I re-read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. If you have not read this classic work of British literature it’s time.  There are echoes of Edith Wharton is this closely observed novel of an aging woman clinging to ever-diminishing resources and the unexpected social demands of her new residence.  It is utterly lovely. 

Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer
The Best Cook In The World, Rick Bragg
K, A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Tyler Kepner
Becoming Superman, J. Michael Straczynski
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, Lynne Olson

I realize as I write this that Rex Buchanan also recommended Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World. I loved this book, and have prepared a couple of the recipes found within.  

As for Dreyer’s English, a book about words is always welcome. Tyler Kepner’s K, A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches is the best baseball book I’ve come across in years. I suspect its a book I will read again, and again.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer is an unusual combination of history and memoir, in which Treuer catalogs how the Indian continues to thrive despite every effort by the American government and many of its citizens to eradicate the Indian and his culture. I strongly recommend reading this book in conjunction with Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, which is scheduled for publication in March

Finally, I read all of 133 books in 2019. That’s a little low for me, but retirement seems to be keeping me occupied. I’ve been keeping a book list since 1996 and I’ve read (or re-read) 3,405 books in that time.

Currently reading a biography of Stevie Ray Vaughn and, of course, dipping into Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit)  to launch the new year properly. 

2019 Reading List

“I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read. I don’t have time for anything else.”
                                     — George Whitman, Shakespeare and Company

1. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
2. Voodoo River, Robert Crais
3. Yossel, April 19, 1943, Joe Hubert
4. Lie In The Dark, Dan Fesperman
5. A Canticle For Leibowitz,* Walter M. Miller, Jr.
6. Flash, The Making of Weegee The Famous, Christopher Bonanos
7. Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross
8. Perish Twice, Robert B. Parker
9. The League of Regrettable Sidekicks, Jon Morris
10. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming
11. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont,* Elizabeth Taylor

12. The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley
13. The Problem of Susan and Other Stories, Neil Gaiman &
P. Craig Russell
14. The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross
15. Frankenstein,* Mary Shelley
16. Shrink Rap, Robert B. Parker
17. Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift
18. The Big Fella, Jane Leavy
19. School Days, Robert B. Parker
20. The Boats of the Glen Carrig,* William Hope Hodgson
21. The Professional, Robert B. Parker
22. Distrust That Particular Flavor, William Gibson
23. Flannery O’Connor, The Cartoons, ed. Kelly Gerald
24. Comics & Sequential Art, Will Eisner
25. Sharpe’s Escape, Bernard Cornwell
26. Thirteen Ways Of Looking,* Colum McCann
27. Late In The Day, Tessa Hadley

28. Still Life,* Louise Penny
29. Golden State, Ben H. Winters
30. Slowhand, The Life and Music of Eric Clapton, Philip Norman
31. The Border, Don Winslow
32. Careless Love, Peter Robinson
33. Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer
34. The Best Cook In The World, Rick Bragg
35. The War of the Worlds*, H.G. Wells.
36. Red Dragon, Thomas Harris

37. The Dragon Factory, Jonathan Maberry
38. K, A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Tyler Kepner
39. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
40. Wolf Pack, C.J. Box
41. Run Away, Harlan Coben
42. A Good Man Is Hard To Find,  Flannery O’Connor
43. The Hand Maid’s Tale, art and adaptation by Renée
Nault, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood
44. The Sweeter Side of R. Crumb, Robert Crumb
45. Odds & Ends, Robert Crumb
46. The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen, Hope Nicholson
47. Prairie Fires, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Caroline Fraser
48. Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud

49. The Fellowship of the Ring*, J.R.R. Tolkien
50. The Two Towers*, J.R.R. Tolkien
51. The Return of the King*, J.R.R. Tolkien
52. Goodbye Without Leaving*, Laurie Colwin
53. Letters to a Friend, Diana Athill
54. Raising The Stones, Sheri S. Tepper
55. Sideshow*, Sheri S. Tepper
56. The Goat Getters, Eddie Campbell
57. Nickel Mountain*, John Gardner

58. Lady In The Lake, Laura Lippmann
59. Miracle Creek, Angie Kim
60. Creationists, E.L. Doctorow
61. Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin
62. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
63. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
64. The Marvel Art of Skottie Young, Jess Harrold
65. The Overstory, Richard Powers
66. Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson

67. Conviction, Denise Mina
68. We Were Killers Once, Becky Masterman
69. Big Sky, Kate Atkinson
70. Hergé, Son of Tintin, Benoît Peeters
71. Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks
72. Less, Andrew Sean Greer
73. The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
74. Exhalation, Ted Chiang
75. They Call Us Enemy, George Takei.
76. Will Eisner, Champion of the Graphic Novel, Paul Levitz
77. Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, Lynne Olson
78. Tintin, The Art of Hergé, Michel Daubert
79. Chris Ware, Daniel Raeburn

80. The Pioneers, David McCullough
81. Sub 4:00, Alan Webb and the Quest for the Fastest Mile, Chris Lear
82. Clyde Fans, Seth
83. Jinx, Brian Michael Bendis
84. Beyond the Phog, Jason King & Jesse Newell
85. Chances Are . . ., Richard Russo
86. Becoming Superman, J. Michael Straczynski
87. Tales of the Batman, ed. Martin H. Greenberg
88. The Bitterroots, C.J. Box
89. MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman with Hillary Chute
90. A Dangerous Man, Robert Crais

91. Magic Words, The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, Lance Parkin
92. The Shameless, Ace Atkins
93. Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
94. The Nick Adams Stories, Ernest Hemingway
95. Normal People, Sally Rooney
96. John Brown to Bob Dole, Movers and Shakers in Kansas
History, ed. Virgil W. Dean
97. A Better Man, Louise Penny
98. Confessions of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell
99. The Institute, Stephen King

100. Inland, Téa Obreht
101. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
102. Blindsight, Peter Watts
103. Deep River, Karl Marlantes
104. Rum Punch*, Elmore Leonard
105. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer
106. Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout
107. Highway to Hell, Joe Bonomo

108. Music From Big Pink, John Niven
109. Land of Wolves, Craig Johnson
110. M Is For Magic, Neil Gaiman
111. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters, Neil Gaiman &
Yoshitaka Amano
112. Sword of Kings, Bernard Cornwell
113. Light Blue Reign, Art Chansky
114. The Topeka School, Ben Lerner
115. Flashbacks, 25 Years of Doonesbury, G.B. Trudeau
116. Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills, Rex C. Buchanan, 
Burke W. Griggs & Joshua L. Svaty
117. Blue Moon, Lee Child
118. The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
119. Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré
120. The Night Fire, Michael Connelly
121. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

122. Westwind, Ian Rankin
123. Hot Tickets, Crimes, Championships and Big Time Sports at
the University of Kansas, H. George Frederickson
124. The Night Manager, Louise Erdrich
125. Jayhawker, On History, Home, and Basketball, Andrew
Malan Milward
126. Under Occupation, Alan Furst
127. Killing Quarry, Max Allan Collins
128. Games of Deception, Andrew Maraniss
129. The Devil In Paradise, James L. Haley
130. Charlie Martz and Other Stories, Elmore Leonard
131. Ross Poldark, Winston Graham
132. Half Broke Horses*, Jeannette Walls
133. Heartland, Sarah Smarsh

* Re-read

“But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.”
                               A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. (p. 238)

“The bare idea of this is no doubt horribly repulsive to us, but at the same time I think we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit.”
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. (p. 139)

“And I add this part here, to hint to whoever should read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things, they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction.”
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (p. 96)

“Sheller,” Fredrickson shouted to the senior squid, who was already crawling through the blackness. “I need some goddamned IV fluid and something to cut off these arteries.” Sheller appeared with a bottle and  IV tubes as well as his kit. While Fredrickson was doing what he could to stanch the bleeding, Sheller jabbed a catheter into Jackson’s arm and held the glass of fluid as high in the air as he could. Jackson calmed down, his terror and panic diminishing as the two corpsmen got his faltering system working again. Mellas glanced down Jackson’s body. Fredrickson was working on pulp below Jackson’s knees. There were no feet.

“You’re going to be all right, Jackson.” Mellas kept repeating. “You’re going to be all right.” Jackson moaned and passed out.

Mellas didn’t pray, but his mind once again soared above the landing zone, seeing all of I Corps below him, and went looking for something better than God — a good chopper pilot.
Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes

“Books are always better when read than explained.”
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern